The 1970s vibe of Alexander Payne’s new film goes way beyond its aesthetic. Ian Haydn Smith explores its road-movie trappings, Hal Ashby references and focus on everyday character drama.
Watch the trailer for The Holdovers and you could be forgiven for thinking that Alexander Payne’s new film is not only set in the 1970s, but was actually made back then. Like last year’s Living, the London-set remake of Akira Kurosawa’s bittersweet Tokyo drama Ikiru (1952), which didn’t so much feel like a drama that unfolds in 1950s London as one that was produced in that period, The Holdovers appears to possess the DNA of Nixon-era USA. (Its throwback studio logos, for example, echo those that would have appeared in Seventies pictures.) But it is no pastiche or nostalgia trip. As made by one of contemporary American cinema’s wittiest, and wiliest, filmmakers, it acknowledges an era when films were driven less by plot than character, and the everyday dramas of ordinary people were more compelling than any action spectacular.
The Christmas holidays are approaching at Barton Academy, a private school in New England. A few unlucky students, whose parents are otherwise preoccupied, have to remain at the school for the break. Worse still, they have been left in the care of Paul Hunham (a zingingly funny Paul Giamatti), the school’s erudite but curmudgeonly classics professor. Some of the boys have the good fortune of a last-minute reprieve, when one of their fathers whisks them off on a skiing trip. That leaves Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa, a real standout), whose parents could not be contacted to gain permission for the trip, alone with Hunham and the school’s cook, Mary Lamb (an empathetic, careworn Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Although the trio’s initial encounters reflect the region’s wintery climate more than any seasonal cheer, a grudging détente, followed by a touching rapport, comes to define their time together. Particularly when they set off on a road trip.
Like so many classic 1970s films, The Holdovers successfully plays with the road-movie genre; more specifically the quest narrative (as opposed to the more dynamic chase road movie), which finds characters embarking on a journey whose emotional and psychological terrain is more important than the physical one they travel along. And this being an Alexander Payne film, comedy of a bittersweet – and sometimes even darker – nature is an integral part of that.
The Holdovers sits snugly alongside Payne’s earlier About Schmidt (2002) and Nebraska (2013), both tonally and in those films’ detailed character studies. About Schmidt starred Jack Nicholson as a depressive ageing widower travelling across the US to attend his estranged daughter’s wedding, and whose psychological journey is candidly articulated in a series of letters to a 14-year-old Tanzanian boy he is in contact with via an American foster-charity programme. While Nebraska found Bruce Dern’s irascible octogenarian convinced by a mail scam that he has won a million-dollar sweepstake prize, leading him to force his family on a cross-country journey to ‘collect’ it.
Payne has cited a number of eclectic references for The Holdovers, including Leo McCarey’s 1937 Depression-era classic Make Way for Tomorrow, which finds two elderly parents shunted between their grown-up children after they lose the leasehold to the family home. Certainly, the emotional detachment between generations that McCarey explored is present in Payne’s film, but The Holdovers’ embrace of the 1970s finds more common ground in films from that era. If it bears little resemblance to post-Easy Rider (1969), drug-fuelled counterculture dramas, there’s little doubting the influence of Hal Ashby, a filmmaker who helped define that decade, but whose career never quite flourished beyond it.
Ashby made seven films in the 1970s, including a satire of privilege (The Landlord, 1970), a sharp take on California’s political culture (Shampoo, 1975) and an affecting anti-Vietnam romantic drama (Coming Home, 1978). But The Holdovers most clearly draws from Harold and Maude (1971) and The Last Detail (1973). The former is less an intergenerational romance, between a late teen (Bud Cort) and septuagenarian (Ruth Gordon), than a mordantly funny coming-of-age tale driven by sexual awakening and an awareness of life’s fragility.
The Holdovers echoes Harold and Maude in the way Payne and writer David Hemingson have constructed the relationship between Tully and Hunham. Sessa, remarkably good considering this is his first screen performance, and Giamatti (his second collaboration with Payne following his stunning turn as wine snob Miles in 2004’s hilarious Sideways) skilfully convey their characters’ neuroses. There’s Tully’s pain over being neglected by his mother and his frustration with Hunham’s fustiness; Hunham’s angst over his academic failings, his social awkwardness and inability to interact, and despair over his students’ unwillingness to take their studying seriously. Where Harold and Maude touched on history with reference to the Holocaust, The Holdovers grapples with class difference – the contrast between Tully’s privilege and Hunham’s background – and race, as conveyed by Lamb. Her son was a scholarship student at Barton and was recently killed while serving in Vietnam, the only route to bettering his lot in life as a Black man.
Hunham’s decision to take Tully and Lamb on a trip to Boston, and what happens as a result of it, offers a softer spin on The Last Detail, in which Jack Nicholson and Otis Young’s scabrous, foul-mouthed seamen are ordered to escort Randy Quaid’s 18-year-old to a naval prison to be court-martialed, giving their young ward the time of his life along the way. Payne, like Ashby, revels in the richness of dialogue and it’s in the interaction between the characters, both during their journey and the various stop-off points along the way, that the film deepens our understanding of them: what drives them and what holds them back.
Giamatti and Randolph received – respectively – Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress Golden Globes (in a Comedy or Musical) for their performances, and it’s a sure bet they will lead the way in other upcoming awards. But, as with all of Payne’s films, as good as each element of The Holdovers is, it’s the sum that impresses the most. Payne’s film is a joyous evocation of the past, punctuated with the perfect degree of pathos, whose concerns remain all too relevant in our turbulent present.
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